Don't let short-sighted views on money hold back your parent group.

by Tim Sullivan


For most PTO and PTA groups, there’s an underlying money conflict that, at best, creates unnecessary drama and delay. Taken to extremes, it almost guarantees that a group will be only a fundraising group, and a fairly ineffective one at that.

The crux of the debate centers on how PTOs should spend their money. Can we invest in our group and in parent involvement and training? Or must all of our dollars be spent directly “for the children”?

I’ve been to countless PTO meetings where the latter camp held sway, and the groups had trouble spending even one dollar on anything that a child couldn’t touch or experience. New computers? Fine. Supplies for classrooms? Field trips? Yes.

But a volunteer appreciation budget? Or a software program to track and recruit new volunteers? No way!

The same thinking prevents groups from paying for the great DJ for the family dance if the treasurer’s husband has a nice boom box and CD collection. It’s what compels groups to charge a dollar for popcorn at movie night rather than thinking of free popcorn as an inexpensive investment to make the event even more memorable for all attendees.

That short-sighted thinking does damage to groups. It’s well-intentioned, but it’s wrong.

I’m all for groups being careful stewards of their limited funds. It’s part of the leadership team’s job. And I’m also for groups supporting the school financially when they choose to and are able to.

Those field trips and iPads and the class supplies are definitely valuable. But they are far from the only way that PTOs can make their schools better. In fact, groups that focus primarily on financial support eventually have the most trouble providing that financial support. Yes, the thought that we can only fund direct purchases that affect the kids actually results in your group being less able to fund direct purchases that affect the kids.

It’s really important that your budget match your priorities. I assume you do your good work and raise money to make your school a better place for students. But there are so many ways that PTOs positively affect their schools. Do you believe that increased parent involvement has huge benefits for your school? (Hint: It does!) Then it’s wise to invest in growing parent involvement.

Do you think more and better and returning volunteers are necessary for your group to grow and thrive and do its good work for your school? If so, then investing in volunteer appreciation and training and tools are also wise budget items.

The same is true of insurance for your officers or getting the DJ to make your family event that much more fun or even paying for an audit of your books annually. These are expenses that help you do even more of your great work well for the long term.

Plus, this more flexible and strategic spending philosophy will actually allow you to provide even more of the tangible benefits for your school and students in the long run.

All of your good work and your fundraising success depends on good volunteers working with passion and on parents and families who are connected to your group and school. If you only fundraise and only spend on school purchases and never invest in volunteers or events or the foundation of your group itself, then you’ll find it harder to add and keep volunteers, and that connection will not grow.

Virtually every group I work with that focuses mainly on fundraising and buying “stuff” for the school tells me that their biggest struggle is a lack of energy and attendance and new volunteer blood. That’s not a coincidence.

Like smart families and smart companies and smart school districts, smart PTOs spend wisely. Sometimes it’s stuff. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes it’s an investment in the future or a maintenance item. Groups that think this way do the most good work for their schools for the longest period of time. Where does your group fall?

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